The imperative of rejuvenating agriculture
THE imperative of agriculture to the growth of Nigerian economy cannot be overemphasised. However, it is disappointing to note that more than a decade after African heads of states converged in Zimbabwe and agreed that, at least, 10 per cent of each country’s annual budget should be allotted to agriculture; Nigeria still has not considered it necessary to implement the resolution.
The agreement which is popularly referred to as ‘Maputo Declaration’ was aimed at increasing the gross domestic product of member states, enhancing their foreign exchange earnings and boosting food security in the continent.
To this end, there is no gainsaying the fact that before the discovery of oil in commercial quantity in Nigeria, the nation’s economy was largely driven by the agricultural sector.
There were healthy competitions among the three regions in the country at the time, in terms of economic advancement which, of course, was anchored on agricultural activities.
The then Eastern Region led the way in palm oil production; the North dominated the world market with herd and skin, in addition to groundnut production (the famous groundnut pyramid in Kano in the 60s and 70s was an eloquent testimony to this fact). The Western Region showed leadership in cocoa and rubber production.
Though there was no value addition to most of these agricultural products in large quantity in all parts of the country, yet employment opportunities were created for skilled and unskilled labourers, educated and uneducated, male and female, youths and adults.
It is, however, heartbreaking to note that most of these products were shipped to North African countries, America and Europe as raw materials, where they are transformed into finished products, shipped back to Nigerian market, and sold at exorbitant prices.
Nevertheless, it is instructive to remember that the first television station in black Africa was established in Ibadan, Western Region, with proceeds from agriculture and not crude oil. Other social amenities such as healthcare centres, schools, potable water, rural electrification, construction of roads and rail tracks were also some of the visible achievements of the governments using revenue from agriculture. Regional universities were established. There was free education in the West.
Agriculture, no doubt, occupies a very important position in the life of any nation or her citizens; this is because there will be food and it will provide revenue for the country to embark on developmental projects.
This is in addition to the fact that agriculture was the first vocation handed down to man by his Creator as could be found in some religious literature.
An educationist and a media executive, Prof. Richard Okafor and Lawrence Emeka respectively, in their book: ‘Nigerian Peoples and Culture,’ gave credence to the aforesaid view when they observed as follows: “The beginning of productive activities for settled life and the turning point in man’s pilgrimage on earth started with agriculture.”
They explained: “As the hunter and gatherer learnt to till the ground and sow his seeds rather than search for food in the wild wastes and waters, a new pattern of life began to emerge. Agriculture is probably the beginning of civilisation. The Roman word for farmer is ‘Agricola’ meaning tiller of the ground. This activity thus provides the world’s oldest and most continuous industry- a millennium, constant and young and yet evolving in many directions and dynamics.”
The celebrated achievements in agriculture in the 60s was done manually and the crops largely organic. However, the new dynamics and direction alluded to in the above quote could refer to mechanisation, the use of irrigation in agriculture, availability of improved seeds and chemicals among many other modern farming practices.
Despite some deliberate government policies in the recent past aimed at rejuvenating the sector, such as ‘Operation Feed the Nation, Green Revolution, Structural Adjustment Programme’ among others, the agricultural sector in Nigeria still remains in a debilitating state.
The budgetary allocation to the sector is very abysmal and has progressively suffered a continuous decline over the years. Its contribution to GDP has also suffered a perennial decrease within the period under review.
The volume of rice, poultry products and can food being imported into the country is alarming. If things are left to continue like this for another 10 years, more Nigerian families will take to the street begging for food.
Therefore, for the nation to ensure food security for its citizens as well as export the surplus as other serious nations do, the government must think out of the box by initiating a policy that is aimed at addressing the identified challenges.
It is, therefore, in realisation of the dangers that the Federal Government through the Ministry of Agriculture is leading a campaign in addressing the identified problems.
Speaking to newsmen at the National Summit on e-Government organised by E-Payment Providers Association of Nigeria, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Sunny Echono, said that the government was not unaware of the challenges confronting the sector but that Federal Government was exploring every avenue to fix them.
We have a very bright opportunity now to grow our agriculture; we have a President that has made agriculture the centre piece of his programme. We want to create employment, to promote national food security and to conserve our hard-earned foreign exchange and also the national reserve. We have built a very strong partnership with Central Bank, to make funds available not only to our farmers but also the processors and others who use the inputs from our farmers.
“We have also gotten support from the regulatory agencies, the Nigerian Custom Service is working with us, and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has also banned the issuance of foreign exchange for importation of things we can produce. So the opportunities are there, the programmes are there, the conditions are now right for people to come and invest in agriculture.”
Echono went on to explain that the government was leading the way in encouraging unemployed youths and school leavers to explore the opportunities in the agricultural sector.
We are promoting agriculture as a business because we know it is profitable. If you go into it, you are going to make your money. It is not a developmental programme; it is not even a subsidy scheme, it is a business you can invest in any part of the value chain. You can come into cultivation, you can come into value addition or processing, you can come into marketing and you can even come into areas of logistics, like packaging, transportation etc. And all these opportunities exist as a special programme we have designed for young unemployed graduates and also young school leavers. We call it youth in agriculture programme; we have designed and advertised it.
We are also going to do a second phase very soon, nearly 50,000 youths have indicated interest but we are going to consider 30,000 in the first phase which will be running in the next one month. But beyond that, our overall target is for seven hundred and sixty thousand (760,000). So we still have a long way to go and we encourage youths to embrace agriculture instead of queuing and looking for jobs that are not there. Think of any vocation in agriculture that you can do efficiently and we will guide you and give you the opportunity to do it.
We will also provide access to credit for you to be able to do it at single digit. We have gotten the commitment of CBN under the Micro and Medium Scale Enterprises to provide credit for people like this under the programme that we have certified with a single digit interest rate. So the opportunity are bountiful, in the immediate, people can be shouting that they are not able to import rice, or fish but the truth is that if you now want to invest in local production, this is your time and we are very happy that we are part of this.
On whether the credit facilities will be accessible to participants of this scheme who may not have collateral to apply for this soft loan, he again offered an explanation:
“These are the issues that have been raised as challenges and we are streamlining these processes. We are broadening the process of access, we have been meeting with governors for example, and they are also streamlining the process at the grassroots. We are working with farmer associations; we are encouraging formation of cooperatives and groups at the micro level. We are improving our registration of farmers at all the village ward levels so that we can know the farmers and use that to advance the process.”
In conclusion, it is heartwarming to observe that while the previously mentioned government’s agricultural programme is aimed at providing employment to over 700,000 youths in the country; it should not end in papers like others before it because whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.
Aleke is an Abuja based journalist. 08067366500, firstname.lastname@example.org